The ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech, was that all?

28 August 2013 marked 50 years since Martin Luther King’s epic ‘I have a dream’ speech. To many, this is considered the best speech ever given in recent history. Like many others, I still get the ‘wow’ feeling every time I watch the video.

But over the years, I have been getting more concerned about the immense emphasis on the speech. I say this because so many people have watched the video numerous times and know the words but have done nothing to lead change in their lives, families and communities.

Don’t get me wrong, these are great inspirational words delivered by a man with first class oratory. But my point is, by our attitude towards the speech, we seem to give it credit for the gains made by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues in civil rights for African-Americans.

I certainly don’t think so. As inspiring as it was, the credit rightfully goes to the work put in behind the scenes and the lives that continued to work sacrificially because they shared in the vision of Dr King.

Besides, the speech was not the most outstanding thing of that day. The long hours of coordinated work by the civil rights leaders, trade unions, white folks and numerous volunteers ensured that one of the largest crowds in America’s history gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for a march for freedom and for jobs.

The other outstanding thing of that day was the 10 Demands to the Congress read by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the lead organizers of the event. These were well-researched demands ranging from equal civil rights, desegregation, housing, training of the unemployed and an acceptable minimum wage.

In my view, the politicians in Capitol Hill were compelled to action (passing the Civil Right Act the next year) because of the mass mobilisation of ordinary Americans (blacks and whites) for a peaceful protest march. Not to mention that racial discrimination began to look unacceptable to many more white folks after this event.

Also, the massive turnout gave the blacks to courage to continue to fight knowing that their fellow Afro-Americans in other parts of the nation and some of their white fellow citizens were one with them.

I do sometimes dream of a day when 1 million Nigerians will gather in Abuja to read out a well-researched demand to our Legislature and Executive arms of government.

So, the speech was simply a window into the minds of Negroes and their leaders, which included Dr King. It captured their present suffering and also painted a picture of the future they all were pursuing. These are the ones whom he referred to in the speech:

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

It is clear that so many Negroes (as that generation preferred to be called) had fought hard for freedom before that speech and after that day. Many of them died for this cause just like Dr King. This is critical lesson to take from the event rather than focusing solely on the speech.

The dangers of speeches like this is people get so excited by the style, charisma and oratory of the speaker but do nothing after listening to it. In doing so, they are not able to experience the depth of work put in to provide the platform for the speech, nor the demands required to sustain the pressure in order for the objectives of the speech to become a reality.

In Nigeria, we have become too focused and in love with the cosmetics (inspirational/motivational speakers & speeches or preaching) but continue to ignore the critical task of taking on board the content and actualising it.

So, the next time we listen to great speeches or sermons like this, we must ask ourselves, “What does this require of me?” or “How can I actualise what I’ve heard in my life and that of my nation?”

Change only comes when people listen attentively but more importantly, get up and participate actively and sacrificially.

What dream do you have for Nigeria, and what are you doing about it?

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